Wednesday, December 16, 2015

December Blog: Dwight Diller Biography - Defining the Book

Here is the December 2015 blog-based tidbits (blogbits?) about my book on Dwight Diller, now in production.  Whereas in November, I had nothing but a “tentative, working title” to offer, now I have the publisher’s brand, the title that will appear in the Spring 2016 McFarland and Company catalogue:

Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician

A close and dear friend of Dwight’s wrote to me early on in this project, saying:

So many people misunderstand him, or are confused by him,
are afraid of his struggle with life,
or are overawed in some way by the force of his personality, 
or are annoyed and upset and therefore are put off by him,
or are captivated by his charisma and wish to please him,
or judge him by their own standards and find him wanting in some way…

Many other friends of his, and students drawn to him by his music and devoted to his creative teaching, told me that Dwight abhorred interviews, and distanced himself from anything that focused on “his” music, “his” life, and “his” accomplishments. 

The message was that this project would never come to fruition, and a book product that fixed its attention on Dwight would never materialize. 

The truth is that from the moment we first discussed the possibility of pursuing the goal of writing Dwight’s story in the early 2000s, Dwight unleashed a torrent of email communication in my direction in which he described his devotion to God, discussed his personal physical and mental challenges in life, AND held forth on the tough life and trying personal life situation that had emerged for him.  He reminisced about his musical journey and the way it was tied to his spiritual life and devotion to his religious beliefs, and he described his portion of West Virginia -- the people, its politics, the long and unremitting economic challenges confronting the state, and the cultural character that emerged from this mix. 

This correspondence went on for over a decade, well beyond the point at which it occurred to me that a book project would not actually materialize.  Perhaps two years after we first discussed this venture, Dwight committed himself to a range of other efforts aimed at recording the stories told to him during the course of his life among West Virginian elders such as the Hammons, digitalizing his massive photograph collection documenting his relationship with that family, and recording more of the region’s great music.  With that massive undertaking before Dwight, I had no illusions that we’d be able to work together on a parallel effort focused on his own life story.  And Dwight, though he remained communicative and continued to share his views and answer questions on a wide range of issues and subjects, grew remote from his initial enthusiasm about writing his biography.
During the first one or two years of our earnest yet stillborn effort to shape a book idea, I was intent on focusing on his music.  And Dwight was intent on fixing attention on his life commitment to a spiritual life, his devotion to Jesus, and his thinking about the moral obligations of such commitments.  I felt decidedly ill equipped to sustain discussions on these matters, and I was convinced that a book resulting from such a focus would be embraced by only a few like-minded people devoted to that spiritual life.  The question became moot because of the way the “Yew Piney Mountains” project emerged and came to dominate Dwight’s focus, and because of our quiet disagreement over how Dwight’s life should be represented.

At some point, I packed up much of my material -- files, photographs, and initial jottings – and put them aside, turning back to my own writing projects.  I adjusted to the notion that this would not happen, or that I would not be involved in any attempt to write this man’s biography, and moved on.  In 2009, I retired from the U.S. Government and my wife Mary and I retreated to Staunton, VA, out of the gravitational pull of Washington, D.C.  Dwight and I talked often, emailed consistently, but the project never emerged again as a subject until he raised the possibility of returning to this goal in a phone conversation in August 2014. 

I suppose it was at that point Dwight decided, about a decade and a half into our friendship - sustained by this correspondence, periodic telephone calls, my own efforts to get from Dwight refreshing reminders of what I needed to do to play old time banjo effectively, gracefully, and responsibly - that he wanted to go forward with the idea first discussed in northern Virginia. 

That was about August 2014, around Dwight’s 68th birthday.  I completed the first draft in early August 2015, in time for Dwight’s 69th birthday. 

And again, as I promised, I’m running a monthly contest: the winner gets a copy of Dwight’s Across the Yew Pines.   Dwight gave me a bunch of these boxed DVDs to distribute to people helpful during the process of the writing project.  The way I see it, if you are reading this BHO blog, and taking a crack at the monthly contest, then you are being helpful. 

See my BHO thread for the DECEMBER 2015 contest.  


Play hard,


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